No Men Stand in No Man’s Land

“When I read that a shell fell into a group of sixteen schoolboys and killed fifteen, I raved.  Talk about rumours of wars and earthquakes in divers places: all that’s historic now. The beginning of the End must be ended, and the beginning of the middle of the end is now.”  -Wilfred Owen, in a letter to his mother Susan, dated 21 December 1914

Today marks the first day of the eleventh month of the 2,018th year of the Common Era. One hundred years ago to the day, the man who wrote the above words at the beginning of the Great War woke up near its end, in “The Smoky Cellar of the Forester’s House”. That morning, he had no idea that three days hence he would lead a charge in the successful battle to force the Sambre-Oise Canal – but would be cut down by a German machine gun, dying amidst a hail of bullets as his men successfully captured the lockhouse.

He had no idea that, almost to the hour, a week after his fall, the machine guns would go quiet, as the Armistice went into effect on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. He couldn’t have guessed that the war he was fighting – “The War to End All Wars” – would be won, but that the Treaty of Versailles that the victory precipitated would set off a chain of events that would lead to a far bloodier conflict which engulfed the world a mere two decades after its signing. And he certainly wouldn’t have guessed that, one hundred years on, he would be known as one of the greatest – if not the greatest – war poets of all time, and that his poetry would be second only to that of Shakespeare in British classrooms. After all, he had only published four poems in his life – and those only in a literary magazine at a hospital where he was recovering from shell shock.

He could not have known these things because he, like over 10,000,000 other men and women, died suddenly and pointlessly in the Great War, which lasted a mere 4 years, 3 months, and a fortnight or so. The last surviving veteran of the First World War died in 2012, so there are no first-hand accounts apart those that have been recorded, on film strips or audiotapes, or in journals, letters, memoirs, and other physical records. The people who fought this war are gone, but we are compelled by their sacrifice to honor their memories.

No men stand in no man’s land, and the grass around Verdun grows green once again. But the headstones still stand in the cemeteries, large and small, that dot the Western Front; nothing grows in the Zone Rouge, and bombs continue to fall here and there, as the factories keep pumping out better and more efficient killing machines. We forgot the Great War once – very quickly, I might add – and the results were catastrophic. So this November, as we prepare to mark the centenary of the Armistice – on Remembrance Day or Armistice Day to most, and to Americans, Veteran’s Day, to Germans, Volkstrauertag – whatever you call it, let us pick up this story as those brave men and women picked up arms or shovels or scalpels, and remember the stories of the Great War. Next week, pin a poppy to your lapel, or listen to an account of a soldier. Attend a reading of Owen and Sassoon, or check out some old newsreels.

Here, on this blog, I’ll be making daily posts featuring images from my large collection of Great War stereoviews, as well many from the downright mind-blowing Jordan/Ference Collection. Some of them will be one-shots, and some of them will be short essays, depending on my mood on any given night and how much time I have free whilst scanning further images for a 3D presentation I’m giving on the topic late in the month. But I feel the need to make one thing abundantly clear: war is not pretty.

I will make no attempt to censor the imagery on this subject. War is messy and ugly and occasionally beautiful and mostly horrible. And those negatives go doubly so for trench warfare. I will certainly be posting jingoistic stereoview of Lord Kitchener (because who doesn’t love Lord Kitchener?) and images of proud pilots standing next to their shiny new Sopwith Camels:

“The Eyes of the Army – Sopwith Camels ready for a patrol over the German lines”, Realistic Travels #68 (in my collection at least; their proprietor often gave cards seemingly random numbers).

There’s nothing wrong with such images, but they must be understood in context – they were taken far away from combat – sometimes on other continents – and were allowed by the governments of the countries in which the publishers were based to publish them. In a very real sense, they were propaganda. And they were necessary propaganda – morale was initially high, when each of the Triple Entente and the Triple Alliance thought that their side would win the war in a matter of months. It sank quite low after that. So images depicting unity, brotherhood, the glory of war, the honor of the uniform – these were quite important in early days. Take this image:

“French soldier decorating graves of fellow English soldiers, Neuilly, France.” – from Underwood & Underwood, from my collection.

How can it not tug at the heartstrings to see a comrade-in-arms visiting the grave of a fallen soldier, especially one from another army, united by a common goal? Propaganda had its place, and some of these sorts of images are quite touching and beautiful. But to the men in the trenches, the war didn’t look like that. It looked like a shattered landscape, with ruined buildings and scorched earth and twisted metal and unexploded ordnance and gnarled remains of trees. It looked like the header image from this post, taken at Verdun, or like the scene below:

“II-A-16 Ruined church at Montfaucon [Aisne]”, 45x107mm glass positive slide, manufacturer unknown (possibly Brentano’s, with English language writing added), from my collection.
It meant months of digging or slogging through sodden trenches, removing one’s boots frequently so as not to risk amputation due to trench foot, filling your hours with banter or cards, writing letters home when you could find dry paper, and waiting for the next attack. And when another week passed with nothing besides the occasional artillery shell landing nearby, perhaps one might find the time to rid oneself of some of the omnipresent pests that were frequent visitors to the trenches, bearing gifts of disease:

“Massiges [Marne] 1915 – La chasse aux poux (‘hunting for lice’)”, 6x13cm glass negative published by LSU (#2132), courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.
It meant stays in hospital, whether for wounds suffered from grenades or bullets or gas attacks, or from shell shock or fatigue or typhus, or perhaps half of your face got blown away by shrapnel:

Soldier with sever shrapnel damage to the right side of his face, 6×13 negative taken by an American doctor working in a French hospital, courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

And of course, if you were lucky – and this was actually getting lucky – it meant watching bullets riddle the man next to you instead of yourself, perhaps a grenade blowing off a comrade’s leg instead of your own, or seeing your mate struggle – too late – to get his mask on as phosgene gas filled the trenches. In war, it is easy to talk about the honorable and noble death. “Sacrifice” is a term often heard, with all of the ritualistic and religious connotations that attach to that word. It’s often used in the phrase “the ultimate sacrifice”. But those that looked on as the bullets missed them, the pineapples exploded a few feet too far away to cause much more than a few nicks and scrapes, and a soldier fit his mask in time to watch someone else make “the ultimate sacrifice”. It sounds meet and sweet when talked about by the Rupert Brookes and the Douglas Haigs. But it doesn’t look so meet and sweet when viewed with an objective eye:

“Verdun 1916 – Cadavres Allemands”, a 6×13 glass positive published by LSU (#2023), courtesy of the Jordan/Ference Collection.

Is that the glory of war? I suppose I’m not one to decide; I’ve never served, never sat in a muddy trench for days waiting until my number was up. But one thing that’s certain is that this is the reality of war. So it will not be censored here. If these images make you uncomfortable – that’s fine, they should. And if you don’t want to see them, you don’t have to. But denying the reality of war, and forgetting the Great War during a period of celebration and indulgence, paved the way towards tyrannical leaders seizing governments and starting another war. Perhaps it is time to look at the reality of what more than 10 million people – mostly men, but women as well – went through during this horrible conflict. And perhaps it’s the best way to honor them. Lest we repeat that old lie – “Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori“.

Anaglyph gallery from this post:


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